We are studying Japan this week, and yesterday I was pleased that the Littles showed interest in writing their own Haiku. I love poetry in any form, but Haiku has always been especially interesting to me because, when done right, it holds the same mysticism that the foggy mountains of Japan hold.
The Japanese have a traditional religion called Shinto that they practice alongside Buddhism, and I just feel it gives their words a magic you can almost taste. Shinto is a nature religion, an ancient belief system that-unlike nearly all other religions-has no known founder or single sacred scripture. It doesn’t split the universe into a natural physical world and a supernatural transcendent world but regards everything as part of a single unified creation. It is a ritualistic religion, and most Japanese consider it more a way of life than a belief system. Because it is so clearly Japanese, there are no missionaries, and it is not really practiced outside Japan. For all these reasons, it is comfortably practiced alongside Buddhism with one not interfering with (rather, each compliments) the other. Buddhism is also a nature-based religion and can also be considered more a way of life than a belief system. It encourages leading a moral life and seeking wisdom in order to reach enlightenment. You can see how the two religions are compatible.
Because of their insularity for so many years, the Japanese have their own way of looking at things. When we think about Samurai and ninjas and shoguns, sometimes we here in the west forget that all of these amazing beings are Japanese traditions. When you combine their particular topography (the center of the islands being so mountainous that a population roughly half the size of the United States lives mainly along the coasts of a country about the size of Californa), their isolated history, and their belief systems, you can see why they might be the people who came up with such a beautiful form of poetry.
Haiku follows specific rules. It has 3 lines. The first and last lines must have 5 syllables and the middle line must have 7. Sounds simple until you realize how few words you have to work with. When we think about the wordiness of Tennyson, Coleridge, and even Brautigan, we kind of start to realize how difficult Haiku is going to be. We have to paint a picture, evoke a feeling, get a point across in a way that other poetry doesn’t require.
(By the way, if you’ve never read Richard Brautigan, go ahead and do so. My favorite poem of his is called Love Poem. It goes: It’s so nice/ to wake up in the morning/ all alone/ and not have to tell somebody/ you love them/ when you don’t love them/ any more. Strong, simple words with punch.)
Strong, simple words with punch. That’s what we’re looking for here. There is even a Haiku to help you remember the rules of Haiku. Ready?
I am first with five
Then seven in the middle —
Five again to end.
If you teach your littles this Haiku, it will help them remember what they have to do to make their own. The first thing they have to do after learning the rules is pick a topic. With Haiku, you have to have something very specific to write about. You can’t be all over the place. A popular Haiku form for children to learn with is the ‘What am I?’ Haiku. The writer uses the Haiku to describe something without ever naming the thing described. It looks like this:
What Am I?
Flying with such grace
Wings full of black and orange
Lands on a flower
What Am I?
Rolling in the mud
Twisted tail the only pink
Squealing with much joy
Read those two poems to your littles and see if they can guess what the poems are about. Then have them pick a subject–animals or seasons or something else that can be described well in a few words, remind them to follow the rules, and give them their freedom. It might take them a while. The thing about any poetry is being concise with your words, painting a picture without losing your reader in verbiage.
Even more so with Haiku.
Eventually, if they like it well enough and practice, your littles might be able to come up with something as lovely as this Haiku penned by Japanese master Kobayashi Issa:
Winter seclusion –
Listening, that evening,
To the rain in the mountain.
The Littles chose animals for their Haiku. Here’s what they came up with:
Yeah, well, Littlest pronounces squirrel as one syllable. It’s the vernacular. I let him have it.
Tomorrow, we’re going to pretty these up with some pictures and hang them on the classroom wall. I think they did a pretty good job on their first Haiku. The certainly enjoyed it. So much that Middle actually wrote two.
I hope your littles have as much fun.